Conflict & Justice

French Muslims upset over minister's first moves


Many Muslim women hoped the ban on traditional face-covering veils would be overturned when Hollande took office. However, it doesn't look as though changing the law is on the horizon, despite rights groups saying it violates international law. Muslim women protested against the ban before it went into effect in 2011, like these women at a demonstration in Tours, France.



When a Muslim, North African woman was named the minister for women's rights under new Prime Minister Francois Hollande, many Muslim women hoped the Nicolas Sarkozy-era "Burqa Ban" would be the first thing to go. 

However, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, who is also the government's official spokesperson, wants to focus on cracking down on prostitution instead as her first priority in office. 

The ban on burqas can more accurately be described as a ban on religious headwear, not just what many think of as the "bee keeper" garb, the traditional burqas that women wear in very deeply Islamic areas. The ban also affects the niqab and hijab, which are traditional headcoverings for Muslim women, but allow the eyes and face to show, respectively, as opposed to the burqa, which is a full-body drape. 

Hijabs, which are simple headscarves often worn by Muslim (and some Jewish) women, were banned by then-President Jacques Chirac in public schools in 2004, and are still a widely controversial issue. 

More from GlobalPost: 3 women barred from France for refusing to remove veils at Charles de Gaulle

France's fervor to ban Muslim dress and lifestyle (an issue over banning halal meat came up during the last election) seems overwhelming, considering the reasons behind it have to do with concerns about national security and terrorism. The rationale behind the "burqa ban" was essentially that only terrorists planting bombs and/or wearing suicide vests cover their faces. But the reality is some women feel it's their religious or cultural duty to wear the veil, and very few women in France even do. Many believe a ban on clothing is not only insulting, but an unnecessary restriction on religious freedom. 

Those who wear a veil (now in outright rebellion) have received threats of violence and have been assaulted by police and laypeople alike on the streets.

"[People] think the ban is official authorization to insult, spit at and even physically assault," said Salima Kader, a Parisian women who continues to wear a veil. "The ban has become a symbol of hate against all Muslim communities.''

When the ban on facial coverings came into effect in April 2011, Amnesty International strongly condemned it, saying it violated international rights law and a person's right to dress however they wanted. 

More from GlobalPost: Netherlands joins growing chorus for burqa ban

"Under international human rights law everyone has the rights to freedom of expression and freedom to manifest their religion or beliefs; these freedoms extend to the way in which people choose to dress," said a very strongly worded statement from the rights organization [PDF].

Sarkozy's right wing government, which was noted for a move toward nationalism that concerned many on the left, passed the ban with few votes against it, and even slipped in provisions later to ban veils from soccer fields, and in privately-run businesses, which Amnesty says is contributing to job loss. 

Now that Hollande's Socialist government is in power, Muslim women figured their cause would get its due.

"Many of the Muslim women I have spoken to are disappointed with the behaviour of Morocco-born Vallaud-Belkacem, one of seven children of an immigrant builder and housewife," wrote journalist Nabila Ramdani yesterday in an article in the Guardian that noted Muslims came out in droves to vote for Hollande, at nearly 93 percent of the demographic. 

More from GlobalPost: 2 arrested on first day of full-face veil ban in France (VIDEO)

But the Socialists now seem to be tied to the French idea laïcité, or stringent secularism, although they've long said the ban on face coverings was badly disguised racism, and they hold not only the presidency but the parliament as well. Despite this stronghold on power, it seems many women may be waiting a while for the administration to take up this issue. 

"If Vallaud-Belkacem is to become an effective women's rights minister, then she should be working to try to improve the lot of all women in society, including those in the same underprivileged Muslim communities from which she came," wrote Ramdani.

For more of GlobalPost's coverage of women's rights around the world, check out our Special Report, "Beyond Aung San Suu Kyi: Women in the new Myanmar".